Friday, 14 August 2015

the yellow house

Luang Prabang, we remember, is a sleepy town full of old temples and lovely old colonial buildings.  We passed through five years ago and enjoyed staying here.  It felt relaxed and easy.  There's a big tourism industry here - lots of hotels and restaurants, cafes and a night market - but the town has a life of its own too.  As we cycle along the road we discern one significant change - more traffic.  More scooters and notably more cars. We have a sketch map to find the yellow house where Coralie, Fabien live with their daughter Vatsana and also instructions from Fabien.   We stop to ask for directions at a very swish looking hotel.  They point us down the road but the man says doubtfully "the road becomes dirt".

We last saw Fabien and Coralie in 2010 in Vientiane.  When we first met in Iran they were driving a citroen 2CV from France to Laos as part of a project to raise awareness about water management issues in developing countries.  They have stayed and worked in Laos ever since.  And they now have a lovely daughter too - Vatsana, who is only 18 months old.  Coralie's father is from Laos, but before they came she didn't speak the language.  Now they are both fluent and Vatsana is picking up words from her day carer, the local village chief's wife.  So, they live in a village then?  Well sort of.  It's a suburban extension of the town, across a side river from the centre, away from the tourist zone, on a dirt road dotted with other houses.

We have three days to catch up with our friends before they fly to France.  But they are both working full-time so we snatch conversation when we can and distract them from a hundred and one tasks they have to complete before they go.  As ever, they both seem remarkably chilled - I would be doing the headless chicken at this point.  Fabien has to seek 'permission' from the local village chief for us to stay in their house, rather than in a hotel.  He takes copies of our passports and a small fee to pay.  It's a reminder that we are not in a 'free' country.  We are introduced to the neighbours from whom we can, conveniently, buy water and beer. The water is in 20 litre bottles and costs 30 pence.  Locals don't drink the tap water.

The yellow house is rented.  It's built in the local style with a concrete/breeze block ground floor and wooden upper storey.  At the front is a garage space and on the side a lean-to kitchen and bathroom.  They have just finished inserting bedrooms in the upstairs, for themselves and Vatsana - normally the upper floor is left open - and bricking off a corner of the ground floor for our guest room.  They share the house with two other families.  It's something they hadn't mentioned in their e-mails to us.  But Fabien insists on introducing us to the patriarchs before they depart.  He only knows the name of one - Ernesto.  Ernesto is a large gecko, who hangs out on the corner of the house at night, just under one of the night lights where the moths and flies hover about.  His family live in the bathroom and kitchen.  There's another gecko family in the living room.  

get him, Ernesto

It's kind of hurried.  We need to know certain things. What to do if the gas runs out or the electricity company come to collect.  When to put the trash out. How to lock up at night.  Washing machine.  Butcher.  Baker.  Pharmacist. (There probably is a candlestickmaker but we forget to ask.)  In the kitchen there are gas rings and two portable electric ovens.  And a sight to bring a tear to the eye of anyone from Hebden Bridge - a yoghurt maker.  There are no glass windows in the house except for Vatsana's bedroom, with the only air-conditioner.  The windows have decorative wrought-iron grills and shutters and there's a large, overgrown garden beyond the patio.  We both think of snakes in the grass, but Fabien assures us it's the wrong season for snakes.

The house is lovely and Fabien assures us this is luxury for them.  For almost three years Coralie was working with elephants out in the countryside - organising an annual elephant festival and then working with a conservation project offering treks with elephants.  Their first house in Luang Prabang flooded in the rainy season.  One night, just as we are heading for bed, the skies open up and there's a deluge.  Really heavy rain.  It blows in the wrong direction and water comes dripping through the ceiling cracks into the kitchen.  There's nothing to be done but wait until morning to mop up.

We meet their friends in Luang Prabang.  There's Rudy and Marion, Julie and Mila and Jo.  Aren't they hot?  Isn't it hot?  I'm sweating just sitting down.  Fabien assures us it will get cooler with the rains.  Rudy tells us that in May, before the rains it's even hotter - unbearable.   We should be glad!  We are glad.  We are glad to finally see Coralie and Fabien again after five years (5 years? it seems like last week) and to meet their daughter.  We are glad to have a nice home to stay in.  We are glad to have a fan.  We are glad to be able to shower.  We are glad to be here, in Luang Prabang.  At last, we can rest.

the Nam Khan river
We wave off our friends on a Thursday evening, off for an action-packed visit home.  We are cooking for the first time in the kitchen - nothing fancy - mushroom omelette.  The eggs are whisked, the onion and mushrooms are frying lightly when the gas goes out.  Ah.  Check the notes ......gas .....gas .....yes, here it is, gas: phone Rudy with the number off the bottle and he will arrange a delivery with the gas company.  Rudy has to call them because no-one will speak English.  But it's 7.30 in the evening so that will have to wait until morning.  And now what?  I know, Fabien showed us the barbecue.  We'll have to barbecue the omelette.  I get the tiny pot stand for the barbecue out and try and light the wood shavings that are in a sack.  I'm tearing pages out of an old Liberation which burn brightly but fail to ignite the wood shavings.  I start fanning.  There's flames, there's embers, there's plenty of smoke.  Has the charcoal caught? No, try again.  Finally the charcoal catches and begins to glow red.  Keep fanning.  The sweat is pouring off me, my hands are black with ash and soot.  When I kneel down to fan the embers the ants crawl all over me. Slowly, the eggs begin to cook.  Finally it's done and we eat.  When we're finished Gayle asks about heating water for a cup of tea.  Back outside I heroically go with the kettle and the fan and for another twenty minutes or so I try and coax some heat out of the coals.  But for all the effort, there's just not enough heat.  Caked in sweat and charcoal dust I am just telling Gayle that she'll have to forget her tea when I suddenly remember something and let out a howl of despair.  There's a hotplate on top of one of the electric ovens.  Oh, if only Coralie and Fabien could see us now.

Monday, 10 August 2015


In the morning we meet Johnny and Jess, Kiwis who are also cycling to the border post.  They've just bought bikes in Chiang Mai and are travelling pretty light. We go through all the usual border post stuff and then have to wait for a bus to take us over the bridge into Laos.  It's frustrating but we knew they don't let you cycle this bridge.  And they charge more to take the bikes, the swines.  On the other side we are the last to go through immigration and time has ticked on.  We all want to take the boat to Pak Beng down the Mekong but it's nearly 11am and we might be too late.  It's not high season but there are plenty of backpackers crossing this border.  What's interesting is that many seem to have an organised trip - only a handful have travelled independently.  I don't know what they pay for the air-conditioned minibus and the tuk tuk pick up, but they're not getting much more than anyone else.  But of course they don't have to think about anything.

In the village of Huay Xai where the Mekong boats depart from there's a proper ticket office with fares posted up on the window.  And there's a boat waiting.  It's almost full, but there are free seats right at the front where we board.  Bikes are hoisted onto the roof and tied on, and all our panniers get carried to the luggage rack at the back.  There must be a hundred tourists on the boat plus twenty or so locals.  The woman in charge walks down the boat and tells all the Lao to go to the back where the engine is.  It's the worst place.  She is making room for late arrivals - a van load who beat us through immigration only now turns up.  Is there a seat for everyone? Only just.  And then the extremely long slow boat eases out into the river and we're off down the Mekong.

The river takes us to Pak Beng for an overnight stop and then there's another boat to take us on to Luang Prabang.  It's wet season so the river is high and the riverbanks are lush green.  The locals are travelling to their villages on route.  They have to jump off on to makeshift floats or another boat or directly onto the mudbank.  This proves tricky for anyone transporting their scooter.  

We spend our first day chatting with Ned, from the States.  He used to work in Laos in the early seventies and was here when the war began.  At some point he gave up teaching and started dealing in Chinese antiquities.  We begin talking about China and he shares his insights on a country where he's been doing business for about 30 years.  As he explains, he has "dragged along the bottom" in China and seen the worst excesses of a corrupt and despotic regime.  In fact once we get Ned started he just can't stop himself.  He believes China is the world's biggest threat at the moment with all the trouble over the islands in the South China Sea (there's oil there of course).  And he talks about the importance of guanxi when doing business in China - connections.  If you know a senior official in Customs, then your container will pass through quickly.  But if you don't?  Then it's parked up over there for months, or the contents destroyed. Ned has clearly had it with China.  Now he wants to travel and explore parts of the world he hasn't visited before: despite living here back in the 70's he has never visited the north of Laos.  He is fluent in the language and chats to the locals.  

The river is not very wide, except at the larger bends, and the views are not spectacular.  Now and again we can see bigger distant hills.  The nearer hillsides sometimes have sections denuded of trees - slash and burn every year before the rainy season blights the region with smog and ash.  The farmers grow 'dry' rice, Ned tells us and he points out examples.  What the tourist cannot see is that over 30% of the land is now in foreign ownership - mostly Chinese and Vietnamese.  In the province bordering China they are planting rubber.  There is also a plan to build a railway from Kunming to Vientiane.  It will criss-cross the Mekong and tunnel through the mountains and the plan is to allow China a 1km strip of land with that rail link.  Laos is a poor country run by a gang of men who are selling it off piece by piece it seems.  And the people we see living in rural poverty by the river will see none of the money.  

At the end of the afternoon we arrive at Pak Beng - a halfway point on the way to Luang Prabang.  The boat disgorges its load.  Backpackers struggle up the muddy, brick strewn bank to meet locals touting for their accommodation.  It's a drag to have the bikes and panniers in a situation like this, but we don't have the time to cycle.  With Jess and Johnny we follow a woman to her place, dump our stuff and head to the Indian restaurant we passed on the road.  We all order different curries but they all look, and presumably taste, remarkably the same.  Of course, Pak Beng is a classic tourist trap but no-one is getting too ripped off and it's clear the tourists bring important cash to the village.  The next day we board a different boat with all the backpackers for the next stage of the journey.  Jess and Johnny are going to cycle to Luang Prabang so we say our goodbyes.  We remember cycling here in 2010 being a rude introduction to cycle touring.  We just hadn't expected such big hills and such steep roads.  And the roads were being upgraded by the Chinese at the time.  The landscape is beautiful but we are quite happy to be sailing down the Mekong today.

fishermen selling their catch

There's a super-friendly Dutch family sitting next to us today and a young American couple opposite us.  Korine and Juan are from New York - you rarely meet travellers from New York - and we natter throughout the day with them all.  It's Korine who suggests we write to Primus about having our stove pump confiscated in Bangkok.  There's more leg room for everyone today and it feels more relaxed than yesterday's tight squeeze with everyone getting some breeze off the river.  But locals once again have to ride at the back.  The waters have receded half a metre overnight. The land opens out more on this stretch of the river so there are better views and there's only one moment when we get stuck on a mudbank after dropping off some locals when everyone looks a bit ruffled.  Ned gets up to help pole the boat off the mud.

At mid-afternoon the hill-top temple overlooking Luang Prabang comes into view.  We dock at the foot of a long staircase which makes me wince - but at least there are stairs.  By the time we've got everything off the boat and the bikes loaded at the top all the backpackers have gone.  The boat drops us about 10 km north of the town, presumably to provide some tuk-tuk drivers with employment.  Off we go in the sweaty heat to find our home for the next few weeks.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

passing through

At Chiang Rai airport everyone has gone home.  Our plane arrives half an hour before the airport shuts for the night, but the security guard not only lets us stay to set up the bikes, but also offers his help.  Do we know where to go in the town?  We do - we have booked a hotel and drawn ourselves a sketch map.  The road is quiet except for a few scooters and pick-ups.  It's only 10pm but the place is pretty dead.  We ride through countryside briefly before turning onto a road with closed-up shops.  Chiang Rai is not a huge town - we find the hotel easily and collapse in our room
er......these aren't ours
We are coming to the end of the first stage of our journey.  Back in February our friends Coralie and Fabien, who we first met in Iran in 2008, wrote and asked if we would like to house-sit for them in Luang Prabang in Laos while they took a holiday in France with their daughter.  We know that they try and return to France each year because we regularly get invitations to join them with their other friends in the south of France.  We've never made it - trying to save money for our journey - but this is a great opportunity to see them in Laos, so we accepted their offer.  The last time we had a long break off the bikes was back in Beijing, last October.  So we're really looking forward to seeing our friends again and having a little rest and recreation.  

We have a couple of days in Chiang Rai and spend it pootling about the town, visiting a wat or two, checking out the bike shops for replacement parts ("Do we really need new cassettes, John?") and checking out the food.  The two best things about Thailand have to be the genuinely smiley people and their food.  We are happily now in a country with plenty of good fruit which we can afford.  There's also a decent breakfast included at the hotel.  We thought it'd be just the regular egg/toast/tea/coffee so imagine our delight when we find three types of Thai curry and rice also on offer, plus Frosties and cold milk.  No more creamer in the cereal.  Being true to type, these cycle tourists sit down to breakfast with the sole intention of staying and eating for as long as is feasibly possible.  On the first morning we are one of the first and I consider going for a lie down before returning for a second sitting.  We even buy some tupperware just to take away some curry and rice for the day we leave....

The road to Chiang Khong is a nice countryside ride through fields and villages, crossing some small hills before turning north.  The roads are not busy and the riding is not hard, but it's over 100km to the border town so we can't dawdle.  We spot a Tesco's on the way into the town but neither of us have the energy for shopping.  We just want to find a room and something to eat.  But when we set off down the main street it's all very quiet.  We pass an empty noodle stall and wonder if there's anything else.  Eventually at the north end of town we come to the posher hotels and a few cafes.  There are a few tourists around.  We instinctively want to say hello to any foreigners we see, but we stopped doing this in Chiang Rai after getting blanked by a few people.  This is our first really touristy country since we left Turkey in January 2014.  We find some good food and order some fried rice to take away for our lunch tomorrow.  Out on the street is a band of four kids busking.  Thai rock pop.  They're not great but just hearing and seeing them is refreshing.  They all look to be about 13 years old.  

There are more pictures of the queen about than we remember from 2010 and we wonder what health the king is in.  But how to ask without causing offence?  Is the king about to "blow his last saxophone solo"?  In Thailand they still have the law of lese majeste and under the military government there has been an increase in court cases - one man has just had a 30-year sentence.  The king plays a significant role in Thai politics - he usually endorses military coups - and his son, heir apparent, is not nearly as popular or as revered.  Best left unasked perhaps.....

too hot for us

Thursday, 6 August 2015

taking flight

We'd wrapped the bikes up in plastic sheeting last night.  I'd attached the pedals onto the insides of the cranks, aligned the handlebars to the frame and deflated the tyres a little.  The rear derailleurs were removed and wrapped in half a plastic bottle before being taped onto the frame.  We taped our little camping stools to the frames to provide a little extra protection, taped polystyrene covers onto the saddles, wrapped the plastic over, applied a large amount of brown tape et.......voila!

We are some of the first at the check-in queue in the morning and the woman who is organising the queue looks at our bikes, shakes her head and says "We can't accept your bicycles unless they are in a box".  Er, that's not what Air Asia's website says.  She looks doubtful and goes off to consult while we hand our passports over to the check-in lady.  She is looking for a visa but we plan to apply for the visa-on-arrival. "Do you have an onward ticket from Thailand?"  Er, no.  We plan to just cycle out of the country.  Meanwhile a man comes back with Mrs. Queue.  He affirms that the bikes should be in boxes.  But that's not what your website says, we counter.  He squeezes the tyres sceptically, like a disinterested car-buyer might prod a wheel with his shoe.  "These are deflated?" Yes, they are normally very hard.  He tells us we will have to sign a disclaimer from any compensation should the bikes be damaged in transit.  I snort.  "Do you offer compensation when the bike is in a box?"  The answer is no.  But he wants us also to sign the disclaimer for any costs incurred if we are denied entry to Thailand.  We sign, just happy to get beyond the first hurdle.

I wheel the bikes over to the oversized-baggage check-in.  The woman asks me to put them on the oversized-baggage conveyor belt, but they won't fit.  "They are oversize" she tells me,redundantly. "Put them over there and sign the paper when you are asked to." Immediately there is a customs officer giving a cursory look at the bikes and then giving me a form all in Korean to sign.  I obediently sign and walk back to a waiting Gayle.  We consider waiting to see if a baggage-handler will come to collect our abandoned bikes but there's still the security checks to go through.  The progress is steady.  There is a minor alarm when I am asked if this is my handlebar bag, once it emerges from the scanner.  Yes, it is.  The security officer opens up and rummages around and pulls out the allen key with which I have to set up our bicycles at the other end.  I look her in the eye and am about to protest when she smiles and puts it back in the bag.  "Okay!"

At the boarding gate we meet the man from check-in again.  He points at our water bottles.  "You can't take those on the plane." He points to the regulations about carry-on liquids.  But we went through the security checks.  We only filled up over there at the drink fountain.  "You can get water on the plane". Is it free? "No." It's a five hour flight.  I stand and drink the water in a rage.  I really don't like this man.  If anyone tells me that airport security measures these days are necessary to stop the terrorists from winning, then I'd argue they've already won.  Flying is now such a tortuous process.  And for some reason I can't help thinking that if a terrorist really wanted to bring down a plane they would find a way to do it, regardless.  But of course, I'm just angry and irrational.  It seems odd to me that while we cannot board the plane with our water all the other passengers get on with lots of bottles of liquids purchased in duty free.  How can that be right?

In Bangkok we join the queue to be assessed by a professional medical team to ensure we are not carrying the MERS virus.  There has been a recent outbreak in Seoul of the fatal virus which has no cure.  We take it in turns to bend down to a little opening where a professional medic puts a plastic gun to our foreheads and shoots us.  High temperature?  I hope not, but the Don Muang airport is feeling rather stuffy.  It feels like we've landed in the mid 1970's.  Everything is brown and dingy.  Bangkok's old international airport has been reopened for Low Cost Carriers.  We pass through immigration and emerge outside to take the walkway over a busy noisy road and down to the train station where there are several food stalls.  We'd read that there was good cheap food here and sure enough, here are the airline staff tucking in.  We stop off at a 7-11 to get drinks and amble back over to the airport.  

Now when we're back inside it feels lovely and cool.  We join the Air Asia domestic check-in queue and are soon handing over our passports.  The lady has just tapped in one of our names when another woman suddenly appears at our side.  "Are you travelling with bicycles?" she asks.  We nod.  "I'm sorry but we are unable to put them on your plane." You are joking?  We are about to go through the plastic wrap/cardboard box conversation when she pulls out her phone and shows us a photo of my bike.  She explains she is the security officer for Air Asia and that the airport security don't like the red thing attached to my bike.  Ahhh, the fuel bottle.  We explain.  It's a bottle to carry petrol for cooking, but it's empty and perfectly harmless.  The woman explains that we will have to go the baggage handling area and explain to the airport security.  She seems very nice and a sidekick appears giving us a "don't worry" spiel.  But then we are joined by two armed men in black uniforms and berets.  One of them arrives on a segway.  Neither of them is smiling.  We all go through the security checks and scanners and out to the boarding gates before going outside and back in to a cargo bay where our bikes are propped up outside an office.  This is the transit cargo security team.  The woman asks me to remove the bottle and show them what it is.  So I open the plastic wrap, unpeel the tape and pull out the bottle.  Our stove pump is screwed into the top, so I unscrew it and show them that the bottle is empty.  What initially raised the alarm was the little skull and crossbones symbol on the bottle.  They even called the explosives guy to come.  And then they couldn't find us.  We didn't check-in.  We explained we had a four hour wait and we went to eat.  Clearly our need for cheap Thai food has caused alarm bells to ring rather too loudly.  The woman explains that security may insist on keeping the bottle but the bikes can go.  I thank her and explain that that is no problem, providing we can keep the pump.  I then have to stand holding the items with her while the airport security guys take photos on their phones.  Everyone is smiles and we think it's all okay. Then the woman goes into the office with them and we wait outside with our personal bodyguards.  She emerges with a grimace on her face and a shake of the head. "I'm sorry but they won't let you take either the bottle or the pump." But why? The pump is harmless.  She tells us that they can smell petrol on both items. We protest.  We have already flown from Seoul with it.  I could set a light to either item and nothing would burn.  She tells us that the 'hazard' symbol on the bottle is the problem.  If only we had covered it up, she laments.  I try to explain that the bottle is only hazardous when it has something hazardous inside it.  We need the pump - it is part of our camping equipment.  So she goes back into the office to argue on our behalf. With no positive result.  She tells me they want to keep both items, fill out a report and send it off.  Where to? Can we come back and claim our belongings later? She shakes her head but offers to give us her name as a contact.  There's also a feeling in the back of my mind that we might have been in a lot more serious trouble if they'd wanted to make things difficult for us.  The security woman from Air Asia has been very professional with us, but the airport guys are either bored witless or just witless.  They probably go around looking for round black objects with a sizzling fuse and the word 'bomb' on them.  Or they just want to punish us in some way.  I am appalled and mad at myself - we could easily have put the fuel bottle in our checked baggage, along with the two cigarette lighters that we are allowed to check in - more dangerous than an empty aluminium bottle. What an idiot.

We have to walk all the way back through to the check-in area, get our boarding cards and then go through the security again.  This time I fill our water bottles and put them in our bags before our flight to Chiang Rai.  No-one sees, no-one knows.  Airport security?  It's laughable.  So why am I almost in tears with anger?  I detest being treated like this.  I hate flying.

Footnote:  A thoughtful traveller suggested we write to Primus with this story.  Their customer service wrote back immediately suggesting either that we try a distributor in Thailand or that they could send us a replacement pump.  As we are now in Laos, we have taken them up on their generous offer of a replacement.  Such great customer service from Primus. Thanks Korine for your suggestion. 

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Seoul spirit

One of the most startling aspects of Korean urban spaces when we arrived was the number of high-rise appartment and office blocks.  This is in stark contrast with Japan's mainly low-rise cities.  It seemed so dramatic.  Now as we wander the streets of Seoul it seems normal again that you can only see the sky by craning your neck.  It gives you the strange sensation of being penned-in.  In the Donghae area where we are staying there are thousands of youngsters filling the streets and the shops.  It's supposed to be hip and cool around here, but that's not immediately apparent.  It's just that everyone is a teenager. Is that hip? 

busking in Donghae
Invariably, because of spending the last five months or so in Japan, we end up drawing comparisons.  You rarely see an advertising hoarding in Japan.  The shops are all tucked away into arcades in the downtown.  Here the consumerism is in your face, everywhere.  One Korean woman told us that although Japan is rich, the people are poor.  It's an interesting view.  We think the Japanese enjoy a very high standard of living, even in the countryside, despite their infamously cramped living spaces.  But wages are low and there's no conspicuous consumption.  In Seoul we are seeing wealthy people but clearly ones with very little too.  Economically Korea is growing faster than Japan and while it continues to develop Japan seems to be on a very long and slow decline.   There's a buzz on the streets of Seoul that we didn't get in Tokyo - but that might just be because the Japanese don't do 'buzz' - they only do 'hum'.

I am washed up and worn out and disinterested.  I am looking forward to our break in Laos, house-sitting for our friends, and want only to rest.  Gayle goes out to explore some of the old palaces and temples and the neighbourhoods of traditional houses that have survived the developer's punishing hand.  These have survived by attracting tourism.  There are also some busy markets.  To get around she takes the subway, which looks large and messy but is very easy to use.  I find some plastic sheeting and tape to wrap our bikes for our AirAsia flight to Chiang Rai.  Our flight is a morning one and to save money we intend to sleep at the airport. 

We meet Brad at the end of the cycle path which has taken us from the city and along a canal to the sea just north of Incheon.  He's a friendly chatty fella who has come to say hello and kindly  show us the way to the airport, which is on an island just offshore.  There are two expressways to the island, neither of which we can cycle.  But we know there's a ferry - Brad is directing us to the place where can catch it.  For some reason it seems to be a lot further than we thought and we finally reach the ferry after a long ride between the docks and the city.  On the island we still have a way to go and it's almost 5 in the afternoon.  We grab a very late lunch of noodles and head south along the coastal road reaching the airport before it gets dark.  Flying through and flying out - we will have to return to Korea to explore further. Autumn seems like the right season - but when isn't it?

we'll be back Brad

Sunday, 2 August 2015

hotter than july

Our journey takes us towards Daegu, Korea's 2nd city. 
The path skirts the city and is busy with locals.  We continue northwards, the valley opening out and then narrowing again.  Everywhere is lush growth, green rice paddies and plenty of wild flowers.  We are definitely going against the grain heading northwards and when we get a headwind I begin to despise the youngsters who are belting southwards.  Lucky sods.  There would be more camaraderie between us perhaps if we were able to talk to them.  Neither of us are inclined to spend time learning any phrases and most of them are too shy to start a conversation.  So it's with older cyclists that we generally chat.  There are a few parents riding the route with their children.  Most stay in cheap motels along the way or at 24 hour public bath houses which have a communal 'rest' room where you can lie down for a snooze.  Accomodation is only a little cheaper than Japan.

temple guardians

In one town we stop to visit a temple and find a supermarket.  Come evening we are struggling to find a good place to camp.  The evenings are relatively cool and we are happy to continue cycling whilst there's still light and the route is straight forward.  But still no good spot.  Gayle is eternally optimistic - there's always somewhere to camp sooner or later.  Later.  It's now dark and we are using our headtorches.  We are pedalling along in the half-dark.  The moon is nearly full and the sky is clear so we have some extra help.  And then we have one of those annoying diversions away from the river, up a ridiculously steep road and through some sort of theme park, past a museum and, oh, an even steeper hill into a forest.  We find a spot but are put off by the mosquitoes.  Then we emerge out of the trees at a vantage point overlooking the river.  There's a raised viewing point and we climb the stairs to check it out.  Weary from the climbs we have all but agreed to stop here when I hear the hum.  It gets louder and louder.  I look up.  The sky has darkened with a cloud of gnats so large I take a step backwards.  We carry on. 

We realise that we too have now become idiot nighttime cyclists.  And we're actually enjoying it. There are fishermen down by the shore and we pass a group of villagers sat on the path enjoying the cool air off the river.  Rattling along a dyke Gayle traps something between her wheels.  A small animal squeals and yaps angrily.  Neither of us see it.  We reach a certifcation point but all there is is a kiosk and a big platform.  We can camp on the platform but some other cyclist would be bound to arrive in the night.  On our first night we were awoken by one at 1am playing his radio.  The older cyclists especially like to have a radio playing.  Then at 4.30am the same night we had another one peering into our tent.  So we are determined to get away from the bike path.  Luckily, just around the corner, we find an unused field.

nice family - Gayle's gone Korean

At some point our river turns east and we leave it.  The day begins sunny but then turns cloudy and it rains.  This feels like a huge relief.  The old road we are on winds up through a steep valley, weaving in and out of the concrete legs holding up the new expressway.  While that disappears into a tunnel, we climb through the trees and up to the highest point of the ride - a pass through a short tunnel just below the ridge.  The climb is graded quite well, much better than the many ramps we have to take to get on or off embankments, and the view at the top is very gratifying.  There are bodies at the top.  Young guys in lycra lie prone.  More come along in the opposite direction, pushing their bikes before collapsing at the view point.  Ahh, the energy of the young.  Our just reward is the freewheel down to the valley floor below us.  The road then climbs a much lower pass, but now we're tiring.  However, our legs feel stronger each time we see the look on other cyclists coming the other way.  They look harrowed.  They have just climbed the biggest climb of their lives - coming from Seoul - and they know there's still the Big One to come.  It's usually on the climbs that I'm glad we have mountain bike gearing.  These nice roadbikes look cool on the flat but not so cool when you're pushing them up a hill. 

"it's all downhill from here Gayle!"
We join a new river in the morning and we know it'll be a fairly easy run to Seoul now.  There's just the heat to beat.  We are now accustomed to getting up early and then stopping for a long siesta and cold drinks for three or four hours in the middle of the day.  This morning we espy two other cycle tourists i.e. with panniers.  Serhan and Tim are riding to Busan.  Serhan has come from Istanbul.  He met Brad in Incheon who sold him a bike and panniers.  (Now I'm wondering what he had before.)  Brad Kirby is a Canadian living with his family in Seoul's near neighbour.  He is a very helpful guy and gave us information about our route before we arrived in Korea.  And Serhan looks energised with his new rig, but even this Turk can't bear the heat. We wish them luck and continue.

Our aim now is to find air-conditioning at siesta time if possible.  Most of the time we settle for somewhere with a breeze.  The weirs sometimes have a place right over the river and on our second to last day we come to one with an inconspicuous tower at one end.  It turns out be a big fridge with comfy seating and toilets.  Delicious.  Anything to help those swollen feet and heat rashes.  We continue to consume litres of ionising Gatorade and Pocari Sweat but still no dreadlocks. 

somewhere we passed the 20,000 miles marker

At the end of one day we find ourselves on a little island in the river, inaccessible to cars.  In the middle, surrounded by trees, is a large grass clearing with a few benches, which is perfect for us.  We are just enjoying the cooler air after dinner and looking at the stars when we hear a strange buzz.   We feel like we've wandered into an episode of M*A*S*H.  Over the hills on the far side comes a huge Chinook cargo helicopter. And then another.  And another. Four go over us.  Later we hear them returning.  It's a reminder that not everything is normal here.  The Koreans still have American army bases all over - there's one in the centre of Seoul - and technically the North and South have never signed a peace treaty.  Many Koreans want their country reunified but this has seemed less likely since Bush Junior included North Korea in his "axis of evil". It came as a surprise to us how close Seoul is to the 'Demilitarised Zone'.

It's a Friday and we're getting close to Seoul.  The river leads us to one town after another and the bike path is increasingly urbanised.  There's a great stretch along a disused railway with a series of tunnels which feel air-conditioned when we pass through them.  We can't find a good place to stop and camp though, so we continue and by sunset we have reached the outskirts of Seoul.  The city has 10 million inhabitants so it ranks in the top 20 largest in the world.  But how many of those have a riverside bike path running through them?  We cross the first bridge we come to, as recommended by another cyclist, and follow the path through a park, stopping to cook and eat before continuing.  There are loads of locals out exercising.  Not just strolling but power-walking and running and cycling. Whole pelotons fly past at top speed.  It's wonderful and annoying at the same time.  Where can we camp?  We pause on a very long stretch of path that seems to be little used.  Gayle follows a track off into the bushes.  The path is lit, but beyond is total darkness.  As I watch a walker slowly approach a deer leaps out across the path between us.  A deer.  In such a city.

Finally we opt to sleep on the benches of a pagoda/arbor.  It's about 10pm and there's hardly anyone passing now.  Just the mosquitoes to contend with.  Until about 4.30 when a man walks past and starts shouting.  We stir.  A cyclist comes to a halt for a cigarette break.  It's dawn and the city lights across the river in the high-rise blocks are slowly going off.  Shouting Man returns, clapping his hands.  He is drinking from a bottle in his pocket and is probably mad.  We start packing quickly.  He shouts some more and starts to rock back and forth against a tree.  We scoot off before he starts shouting again and find a quieter spot for breakfast.  

There's some relief at reaching Seoul mixed with regret because this is really not how we want to travel.  We have crossed the country in 8 days but we certainly haven't seen much of it beyond the two central river systems.  

I can't say what the cities are like, or how the people are, or what the food is like.  And I feel completely burnt out with our cycling since we left Hokkaido.  Too fast, too much cycling, and maybe the length of our journey has finally got to me.  Gayle, on the other hand, is itching to have a look around the city.  We follow the bike paths on both sides of the city.  It's Saturday  morning and teeming with cyclists.  Lots of cool and trendy ones.  It's definitely fashionable.  We pause in a park to watch a group of people, Koreans and ex-pats have a session of Extreme Frisbee before finally leaving the river to find our hostel.  It's tucked away on a backstreet in a 'trendy' student area. We have a bed and we have air-conditioning.  We will have three nights of wonderful sleep.